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David Thomson on Films: The Stunted Adulthood of Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom is set on an island, but its director Wes Anderson has always seemed like someone who insisted on a small off-shore existence. This is not uncommon in American movies, or necessarily forbidding: Josef von Sternberg lived on a glowing island where the light and its shadows fell on the face of a woman, ideally Marlene Dietrich, because Sternberg had loved her and been humiliated by her. Howard Hawks preferred to find an enclosed cockpit of intense talk and action—the airfield in Only Angels Have Wings or the court newsroom in His Girl Friday. The cattle drive in Red River seems set against epic American landscapes, with changing light and weather, but it’s really a camp that could wander on forever. Woody Allen haunts the streets and interiors of what looks like Manhattan, but he clutches his overcoat island of solipsism. In the same way, Wes Anderson has always been drawn to isolated worlds inhabited by adults who are lost children.

In Moonrise Kingdom, in and off the shore of a fabled New England, there are storms coming. One has to do with weather and is forewarned by Bob Balaban, a figure in red (Wes Anderson is thrilled by red), somewhere between God and a Maine meteorologist. The other is an attraction between two kids, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gillman). How old are they? Well, there’s the rub, or the respectful touch—for on a wistful beach Suzy does tell Sam he can touch her chest, which is indicated by a hopeful white bikini top. The film is vague on how old the kids are, just as it is evasive on what “love” means to them. As well it might be, for on the mainland of commercial movie-going we could be close to ratings panic—Moonrise Kingdom is PG-13 (for “sexual content and smoking”). But as so often with Anderson, it’s generous to call this sexual content as opposed to fey signaling.

These kids are nostalgic, wounded grown-ups, like all the other adults in the film: Sam is an orphan, but Suzy has despondent malfunctioning parents, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, and the remote world in which they live has authority figures in Edward Norton’s “Scout Master Ward” and the local cop, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Ward is in short khaki pants, of course, and, with Norton’s perpetually youthful gaze, is a head boy, while Sharp is anything but what his name promises—a dull, sad veteran of disappointment.

Some commentators have said that this is a charming evocation of first love for the kids, and if that’s how you see it, that’s fine. I think it’s rather more a woeful but smug commentary on how adults make a mess of everything while romantic children just want to be pure and touch each other’s chests or whatever. In fact, Kara and Jared are thirteen (a year older than Lolita, a.k.a. Dolores Haze, and a good deal more knowing than Mr. Anderson about what marriage means at that age). Never mind, Moonrise Kingdom is a damp, soggy terrain where moisture and sentimentality ooze under every step. The film is frequently funny, always elegant (or mock-elegant), and something that would make Humbert Humbert laugh all the way to his asylum. Whenever it finds itself nervous about feelings (which is often), it plunges into childlike but cool, ironic art direction as if to say, look, this cute story is done as seen through the kids’ eyes. Isn’t it? Whereas, the sensibility of the whole enterprise is of an adult alarmed by anything like maturity (so let’s refer to it as “maturity”) and nostalgic for the purity of childhood about to be warped. What it is is J.M. Barrie, and the Peter Pan whimsy could give you the creeps.

In a recent interview, in Sight & Sound, asked whether the film didn’t present a very Norman Rockwell vision, Anderson surprised me with this forecast: “These kids that are in the story, she’s bound to end up at Berkeley or something and he’s probably going to get sent to Vietnam”. What jarred for me in that notion of an alleged 1965 was the unlikelihood of these kids getting access to anywhere except Never Never Land. Nor do I feel any way in which they will have to confront and deal with the disillusion that faces their elders. Their trick and advantage is that they are enchanted. That is very like the gloomy armor worn by Woody Allen’s characters. It’s living on an island as opposed to being in the world.

Which brings me to Anderson’s famous family: the group of writers and actors he likes to keep on hand. This script is written with Roman Coppola (who also worked on The Darjeeling Limited), and in the past Anderson has collaborated with Noah Baumbach (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr Fox) and Owen Wilson (everything until Moonrise Kingdom, when he may have been hijacked by Woody Allen). He has a stock company that includes Wilson, Jason Schwarzman (from Rushmore) and that eccentric standby, Bill Murray. Now Murray is a small, grumpy treasure. He can hardly play a round of golf without being funny. He has had his moments in six Anderson films, but can anyone say he is used, or extended? Or is he just part of the flora and fauna of Anderson’s island. Newcomer Tilda Swinton, playing “Social Services,” manages to make a far deeper impression because she senses that her part needs a touch of starched blue Grimmness. But Murray and McDormand are merely “there,” just as Bruce Willis gives hints of hoping for one of his real supporting roles instead of an endless cameo.

In short, for all that Wes-ites will revel in this film (it is doing knockout business in sixteen theatres), I can’t believe Anderson is going anywhere except to his self-satisfied island. He might study another islander, Ingmar Bergman, who established his own confined context as he grew older, just as he lived personally on the off-shore island of Faro. But Bergman was not complacent in his detachment. He knew it was a model of existential loneliness, not just Swedish but world-wide. For Bergman the island was no escape; it was the most dangerous place. Wes Anderson, by contrast, dodges solitude and indulges a kind of prettified “lonesomeness” that is mock-poetic, soporific and faintly creepy.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.